By 0500 hours on the morning of 5 July, despite the Soviet attempt to disrupt the opening of Zitadelle, the Ninth Army was attacking in the north, and the Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf in the south. The offensive began with the Germans’ own preliminary bombardment, with the artillery and massed nebelwerfer batteries targeting the trenches and bunkers of the Soviet forward defences. The aim was not so much to destroy Soviet positions and kill the defenders – the 50 minute bombardment was far too short for that – but to dislocate and unbalance the enemy. Model and Manstein wanted to ensure that Soviet guns were neutralized, their command and control was disrupted and the infantry’s heads were tucked firmly below the parapet as their tanks and infantry began to attack. Nevertheless, by the time the bombardment lifted, the artillery had fired more shells than they had during the campaigns in France and Poland combined. ‘At last,’ says heavy gunner Johan Müller, ‘we were taking the initiative. After weeks and months of map work and firing tables, it was good to be in action again. We had plenty of shells to fire and got through them quickly. We were told that our work had been tremendously successful and its accuracy had been remarked upon by headquarters.’ The attacking formations eased themselves forward, covered at first by the ground-based artillery and then by the Luftwaffe in the form of He-111 and Ju-88 medium bombers. Despite the best efforts of the Soviet Air Force to destroy the German aircraft on the ground that morning, ground-support missions were being flown in support of the offensive with near impunity.
The Luftwaffe had been alerted to the Soviet threat by the enemy’s early preliminary bombardment, and then by seeing aircraft approaching their airfields on the radar. The 800 aircraft of Luftflotte 4 were spread over several airfields and in the process of being fuelled and loaded with bombs for their first sorties of the day when the sirens began to wail their warnings at 0330 hours. Many of the aircrews were in briefings or at breakfast but they immediately rushed to their machines and took off into the breaking dawn. Oberstleutnant Walter Lehwess-Litzmann, the commander of a German bomber group, recalls:
I had just gathered my commanders to assign them with their last instructions when I received an excited phone call which gave me revised orders. We were to take off immediately, although it was still dark, and attack the Soviet artillery positions.
The sky quickly filled with German aircraft. Over the radio, crews were told about the approach of a massive raid – it actually comprised 132 Il-2 Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft with a close escort of 285 La-5 and P-39 fighters. The German fighters were to intercept the Soviets, and the aircraft detailed to support the offensive were to start their missions immediately. So began the crucial battle for air superiority on 5 July. Within minutes, Miklós Keyneres, a Hungarian pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf-109, was locked in combat with Il-2s as German flak burst among the Soviet aircraft. He recalled:
In their great excitement, the flak gunners don’t pay any attention to the close proximity of our own aircraft. But we ignore their fire. We have our eyes only for the four red-starred aircraft . . . The machine [a twin-seat Il-2 with a rear gunner] on the left side peels off from the rest, with me in hot pursuit. The hunt begins. The Russian pushes close to the ground and escapes, hopping over trees. But we remain clung to his tail. On my right hand side, three Germans are pursuing too. One of the Germans dives on it, but fails to bring it down. Now my turn has come. I pull up slightly and, from the far side, I aim ahead of the engine but hold my fire for another moment. The distance is still too great. Then I squeeze both firing buttons. I pull up in an instant to avoid colliding. I skid out to the right. I get on its left side again and from above and behind I shoot at the cockpit. By now the Russian gunner does not return fire. From a close distance I open up with the cannon. The machine shudders and hits the ground with its right wing tip. It slides along a creek, violently burning.
German anti-aircraft defences caused the incoming Soviets considerable problems, as Nikolay Gapeyonok, the pilot of a Pe-2 dive bomber, remembers, when they attacked an airfield west of Belgorod: ‘We ran into a heavy AAA [anti-aircraft artillery] barrage, which disrupted our bombing. Two Pe-2s exploded in mid-air as a result of direct hits, and a third bomber was damaged.’ It was a similar situation in the north where Senior Lieutenant T. Simutenkov, flying an Il-2, ran into a curtain of fire:
As we approached our target I could see the anti-aircraft fire ripping through the sky. I held my course and could just make out some enemy aircraft taking off. This was a shock as we were convinced that we would achieve surprise and record a major success, but before I had a chance to make my attack my aircraft was hit in the fuselage and then the right wing. Smoke began to seep into the cockpit and I struggled to remain in control . . . I feared that the engine would burst into flames but it did not, but it stuttered and lost power. I instinctively swung the aircraft south and within seconds was making a forced landing somewhere within our lines . . . It was still dark and I hit the ground with a fearsome crash which ripped the undercarriage off. But the aircraft skidded to a halt in a field and I was able to push back the cockpit and walk away shaken, but unharmed.
The Soviets had hoped to catch the Luftwaffe cold but instead took considerable losses in an air battle that developed into one of the greatest of the war. The Germans gained air superiority that morning and destroyed 176 enemy aircraft for, perhaps, as few as just 26 machines of their own fleet. Rather than removing a crucial element of the Wehrmacht’s offensive ability, Stalin’s airforce had provided the Germans with the opportunity to weaken the Red Army’s defences. This meant that the Luftwaffe was able to fly nearly 4,500 sorties in support of the ground forces on 5 July, and despite flying 3,385 sorties of their own, the Soviets could not breach the German fighter screen in any numbers. A Moscow-sponsored report into the situation commented later in the year: ‘Our aviation fought air battles primarily against enemy fighters along the approaches to the battlefield, while enemy bombers were operating almost continually against our defending forces immediately over the battlefield along the main axis.’
As the fight for the sky unfolded, Hitler’s army began what was to become its own titanic attempt to crack the Red Army’s defences.